Superclear format can puncture fantasy feel of ‘The Hobbit’

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LOS ANGELES — One thought struck me as I watched the new “Hobbit” movie in the latest superclear format: “The rain looks fake. It’s not hitting their faces!”

That is just one consequence of filmmaker Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot his epic, three-part “Lord of the Rings” prequel with a frame rate of 48 images per second, double the 24 that cinemagoers have experienced for the past century.

The higher frame rate is supposed to make fast action scenes look smoother, without strobing or other cinematic flaws. But the image is so crystal clear that it can dispel the illusion of the fantasy world.

Mr. Jackson used his own money to pursue the new technology, covering the higher production costs involved with adding special effects to twice as many frames.

The studio, Warner Bros., also backed the format because it creates something new and different that can only be seen in theaters at a time when movie ticket sales in the U.S. are stagnating. For the time being, the new format isn’t compatible with Blu-ray discs, DVDs or Internet video. Many people will buy movie tickets just to see what it’s like.

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“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first of three movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” opens Friday. About 10 percent of U.S. theaters that carry the movie will offer the higher-frame format. U.S. theaters aren’t charging extra, though the format is offered only as part of 3-D screenings, which cost a few dollars more than regular tickets.

In the screening I attended, the higher frame rate did smooth out the staccato effect common in action-packed movies. I thought some scenes using computer-generated images looked more realistic. The format brought out details that might not be noticeable with just an increase in resolution.

These are benefits for fans of the kind of heart-pumping fight scenes that are peppered throughout the movie. For some people, it is also touted to help ease the eyestrain they experience when watching movies in 3-D, though I didn’t notice any difference on that front.

Sometimes, though, the images can look too good.

In the rainy scene I mentioned, the intense clarity made it look as if actors with wet hair were moving between carefully placed artificial rainmakers instead of suffering through an actual downpour. So-so acting was more noticeable, and swords that were swung too easily looked like props. Flickering flames and other quickly moving objects sometimes appeared to race along in fast forward, even though that wasn’t the intent.

Several people who have seen “The Hobbit” in “HFR 3-D” have concluded that 48 frames per second is not for them, even those who wanted to fall in love with the technology.

“When I actually was watching it, I was trying to convince myself it was great,” said Chris Pirrotta, co-founder of the Tolkien fan site, TheOneRing.net, who reviewed the movie under the pseudonym Calisuri. “Eventually I realized I kept being taken out of the story. The realism of the environment really took me out.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy said the high frame rates appeared to him like “ultra-vivid television video.” The Associated Press’ David Germain said the extra detail “brings out the fakery of movies.” Variety’s Peter Debruge said the benefits of high frame rates come at “too great a cost,” adding that “the phoniness of the sets and costumes becomes obvious.”

That’s not a great reception for a technology that has the potential to change the movie-going experience. “Avatar” director James Cameron is among those eyeing the format.

Since the advent of the “talkies” in the 1920s, 24 frames per second has been the standard, picked because it was the lowest frame rate that would allow for acceptable sound fidelity. Higher frame rates have always been possible but at the cost of using more film.

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